And they're off ...
November 15, 2004
BY PHIL ROSENTHAL TELEVISION CRITIC Advertisement
Chicago all but glistens as its gray skies melt into a postcard palette of blues. An ominous, unseasonably cool and blustery mid-summer morning in Grant Park has been transformed for prime time -- in the nick of time.
"Absolutely just one of those stunning Chicago days," marvels Phil Keoghan, host of CBS' "The Amazing Race," which makes its sixth-season debut Tuesday night at 8 on WBBM-Channel 2, but actually launched its serpentine 29-day, 75,000-mile round-the-world rally from Buckingham Fountain on Aug. 13.
Off-duty police officers on security detail have sealed off the fountain's perimeter. A helicopter hovers nearby. For theatrical effect, the 11 competing couples have been brought in across Lake Michigan aboard high-speed boats. Their backpacks are carefully arranged in a row a sprint away from the "Race" starting line.
A two-person camera and sound crew assigned to each team awaits just behind the corresponding knapsacks. Other cameras, including one suspended from a boom, are discreetly off to the side, where a handful of other personnel watch.
Within moments, almost everyone will be scurrying on their way to Iceland, the first stop for the first leg of this season's race.
The winning team, which will collect a $1 million prize, will spend the next few weeks not only trying to beat the others -- overcoming various travel obstacles as well as physical and mental challenges and stunts -- but also resisting bickering among themselves.
The people behind the scenes, meanwhile, must do nearly everything the contestants do but often running backwards and looking through a viewfinder. The phrase "logistical nightmare" comes up a lot in conversations.
"The teams, they're like sprinters," Keoghan said. "They run. They rest. They run. They rest. We just run. If they're running 400-meter races every leg, we're running a marathon."
"Even when they're resting ... we are working ahead, setting up for the next show, anticipating new schedule changes. The people that make this show are truly extraordinary at what they do."
The results are just as extraordinary. "The Amazing Race" has grown in popularity at a time when reality TV is in recession, in part because it's a reality series even those who say they hate the genre can embrace.
Not for nothing has it won two straight Emmy Awards. It's packed with drama that plays out against a backdrop of international locales. Each episode is a video coffee-table book of gorgeous scenery in exotic, faraway places.
"Race" is not just the road less traveled. It is the road almost never traveled, though series co-creator/executive producer Bertram van Munster, a Dutch producer, says his lifetime of far-flung sightseeing has helped shape the show's globetrotting.
"I sit in the car, some broken piece of [garbage] car," van Munster said. "I drive around and say: 'Wait. Stop. Back up. This is really cool.' That's how we got Calcutta [in season five], with the [car] engines hanging in the trees like fruits. That's the kind of wacky stuff we get organically.
"A lot of people have tried to do [this] type of show, but it's kind of lukewarm because -- without being arrogant about it -- there's not enough knowledge to put things together like that."
Most of the planet is open to a "Race" stop, with a few easy-to-guess exceptions. "Obviously we're not going into Iraq or Afghanistan and places like that," said van Munster, who has contingency plans for evacuating teams in an emergency. "Ninety-nine percent of the world is perfectly safe."
Boston originally was to be the starting point for season six, but van Munster and his producers realized it would be better to take a less direct path to Iceland.
Once the 11 teams hustle from Chicago's lakefront to O'Hare on the Blue Line, there are three possible flights out of town and, as always, each plane has a limited number of available seats.
"I love Chicago," said Keoghan, a New Zealander by birth. "It's probably the most telegenic city in America. It has all the qualities that you want in a big city. It's got a great skyline. It's got a great lakefront. The streets and everything have a little bit of history.
"Sometimes you get places where the weather isn't great and where the city might not be showing off in a way that the locals would like to see it shown off. ... [Chicago] is just one of those cities where, no matter where you put the camera, it's going to look good."
Most places look good on "Race," though. The only reality show to compare in terms of polish and shine is CBS' "Survivor," which has the considerable advantage of taking place in one location and shooting over more time.
"[They] don't have to factor in pieces of equipment going missing on flights, customs holding pieces of equipment," Keoghan said. "We're constantly having to make compromises and adjustments to the way ['Race'] is shot.
"Things don't work and you can't get replacements in time. ... Throw in weather, mechanical problems with planes, schedule changes, delays, all of those things, it becomes a huge logistical nightmare because our playing field is global."
"Race" crew members tell harrowing stories of nearly failing to capture critical situations because of travel delays and other snafus. "We literally have had occasions where I have been running up one side of the mat [marking the end of a leg of the race] while the first-place team is running up from the other direction," Keoghan said.
"I will not allow myself to be intimidated by logistics," van Munster said. "Of course, I have a whole army of people that are always kind of scared. But I say: 'No, you can actually do this. You can go from here to here to here [in time], and how do I know? Because I have done it 50 times.'
"I have meetings with my producers [to arrange] where every camera goes for weeks on end. We know how to catch [players] at the right moment, and we have extremely talented cinematographers that catch these moments in real time."
(Interestingly enough, while the start of "Race" went off without a hitch in Chicago, CBS News' Harry Smith and Dave Price required a second take when kicking off their version of the first leg for a feature about the series set to air Tuesday on "The Early Show." While it's not clear this will be included in their report, they shot a retake of their sprint from the starting line to their bags and feigned surprise they were headed to Iceland.)
While locations usually look good, competitors often don't. As in most reality shows, the blend of participants is vital to "Race." There inevitably are teams to root for and teams to root against. Each pair has some prior existing relationship, be they best friends, parent and child, lovers, former lovers, high school pals, siblings, married couples, long-distance daters or engaged to be married.
Within the teams, there also tend to be twists and some are more obvious than others.
A husband and wife this time, for example, happen to be pro wrestlers. One engaged couple is made up of two models. Two sisters are Mormon, with one traditionally conservative and the other hyped as a wee bit wilder.
Less promoted is the fact a pair of dating actors includes a woman who participated in last winter's pay-per-view Lingerie Bowl football game. And while one pair is billed simply as "married entrepreneurs," it turns out the hothead hubby is wed to Playboy's Miss January 1996.
"The cool thing about the show is it just seems to be getting better," said Keoghan, who has a new book and new cable show, both called "No Opportunity Wasted," encouraging people to set life goals and break out of their comfort zones a la "Race."
"We're getting better at making ['Race'] ... and choosing people that we know are going to deliver material. It's the first time I've worked on a show that's grown in popularity every season. ... This thing seems to be getting stronger and stronger."
One great handicap to "Race" initially building an audience was that it made its debut in September 2001 less than a week before the attacks of 9/11 cast a pall on a show about Americans abroad.
The series has always been a critical favorite, however, and CBS chiefs Leslie Moonves and Nancy Tellem didn't waver in their support even when its ratings hardly ensured renewal.
Fortunately, a 2003 Emmy win over "Survivor" and "American Idol" proved an eye-opener to viewers, helping last summer's edition become a breakout hit.
"People suddenly found the show that had been there for a while but that maybe hadn't gotten the attention," Keoghan said. "It just exploded this summer and suddenly it became water-cooler talk. Now there's an expectation, particularly with the second Emmy award [in September]."
Those expectations are such that CBS already has ordered a seventh "Race," so things already were brightening for the show before the clouds broke right on cue three months ago in Grant Park.
"You guys have a phenomenally beautiful city," van Munster said. "It is extraordinary. When the wind is dying down, I love it."http://www.suntimes.com/output/entertainment/cst-ftr-phil15.html